Tuesday, 6 November 2007

The Tiger that Isn't - Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot *****

Leaving aside the fact that the authors of this book sound like a location from Doctor Who ("I stared across the barren waste of the Dilnot Blastland"), reading it is a great experience. The premise is simple, but effective. All the time we are bombarded with numbers, with statistics, that we tend to take as gospel. But both the numbers themselves and the way they are used should always be subject to a little light questioning.

The authors point out how easy it is to bamboozled by very large numbers, that can be checked out with only a few moments thought. Often what is required is to put the numbers into terms we can better understand. For example, if you heard that £3.12 billion was being spent on the UK population, it sounds an immense amount. But as the authors point out, when you take around 60 million people in the UK and 52 weeks in a year, this amounts to spending £1 a week on each person - not quite as dramatic as it seems.

I've found myself being a little bit more thoughtful about the headline figures I see in the media since reading the book. The same day I saw a newspaper headline telling how some serious crime was up 50% - a huge increase. But when you looked at the actual numbers, there were only 20 more cases. Tragedies, each one, for the people involved, but still a very unlikely occurrence, blown out of proportion by the power of percentages.

Averages, too, come in for a good deal of stick. After all, the average person has less than 2 feet (think about it), so should we change the way we sell shoes in pairs? Probably not.

Very readable, always informative and often entertaining, this is a book that every politician, civil servant and ... well, everyone... should read. It is unashamedly UK-based in its examples, which I guess explains why there isn't a US edition - but that shouldn't put anyone off. The message is universal.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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